Peer Recognition: An Employee Engagement Secret Weapon
Virtually everyone who has worked in a traditional workplace environment has participated in the obligatory formal annual review with their manager. Seems reasonable, right? Your manager assesses your performance annually and provides you formal feedback. Oftentimes, this process includes performance feedback, recognition and some type of performance award (e.g. bonus). The combination of these should result in highly engaged, motivated employees, right? Not so fast. Many companies are shifting away from the traditional annual boss to subordinate employee evaluation and recognition model and instead embracing more modern approaches. For many organizations incorporating and encouraging peer to peer recognition and feedback is becoming an increasingly effective tool in the employee engagement toolbox.
In collaboration with Globoforce work human, Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM)’s January 2018 report Using Recognition and Other Workplace Efforts to Engage Employees finds the following:
- 49% of HR professionals believe that performance reviews are not an accurate appraisal of employees’ work
- Frequent performance reviews are seen as more accurate by HR
- 76% of HR professionals agree that annual performance reviews are more accurate when coupled with ongoing peer feedback
- Of the 29% of HR professionals whose organizations use peer feedback, 89% reported it having a very positive or somewhat positive impact on their organization
- 47% of HR professionals cite retention/turnover as a top workforce challenge
- HR professionals are more likely to rate their employee recognition as “good” when any employee is able to nominate or recognize a peer, compared with those who had supervisors/managers, senior-level executives or HR give recognition
As a corporate consultant I’ve watched many leaders spend a good part of December and January preparing and delivering obligatory annual reviews, then complain that it’s an administrative nightmare that usually doesn’t significantly enhance performance or engagement. Having seen this phenomenon unfold year after year, I can’t say that the report findings while alarming were that surprising. In my experience it’s been a bit of a dirty little secret that the old school traditional formal boss/subordinate annual appraisal process often doesn’t yield benefits worth the tremendous time invested. Of course, this doesn’t mean that manager appraisals should be abandoned – they can indeed be a powerful tool when enhanced (e.g. conducted more frequently, peer feedback incorporated, more meaningful feedback provided, etc.).
Indeed, many organizations are realizing that one way to dramatically improve employee engagement is incorporating peer feedback and recognition as part of their overall performance management process. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. While the boss/subordinate relationship is undeniably important, bosses are rarely uniquely qualified to assess and recognize employee strengths, accomplishments and/or developmental areas. After all, most employees spend far less time with their immediate supervisor than they do with their colleagues, peers, customers, suppliers, and other key stakeholders. Virtually all organizations laud the fact that most work is accomplished through teams, but more often than not, they typically leave the responsibility for assessing or recognizing employee performance or achievement almost exclusively with supervisors and managers as part of “their job.”
Some organizations though have challenged traditional processes and started incorporating peer feedback as an active part of their employee engagement efforts. Duke Energy’s Chief Human Resources Officer Melissa Anderson explains the success of their High Five employee recognition program where peers and colleagues send each other electronic badges with descriptions of why they’re being recognized. Anderson insists, “Employees increasingly want more feedback. They want companies to invest in their development, and this peer feedback enriches that process.”
Anderson also shares that Duke Energy has seen the benefit of encouraging a 360 feedback type process. “We have more than 500 leaders that have been through a 360 review process that includes peer feedback. We have seen that those who have participated in the 360 program have a higher rate of creating a development plan than those who have not,” says Anderson.
Ranked #1 on Fortune’s 2019 List of The 100 Best Companies to Work For, Hilton has implemented peer recognition initiatives including “Catch Me at My Best” and “Email High Fives.” Hilton’s Chief Human Resources Officer Matthew Schuyler describes the peer recognition programs as “a fast, free and fun way for Hilton Team Members to say thank you/congratulations or recognize a colleague or team member.” He points out that content is completely customizable (including language) and print friendly versions are available for those without email access.
Why do companies invest in peer recognition initiatives? They acknowledge a strong link between vibrant, ongoing peer feedback and recognition and enhanced teaming and business results. Gartner’s report Peer Feedback Boost’s Employee Performance concludes that, “Employee performance improves when organizations foster a culture of peer feedback and capture how employees add value to others’ work.”
Admittedly, peer recognition isn’t a new concept. I recall decades ago when my Director decided to add “Kudos, Tips, and Gripes” as a recurring 5 minute agenda item for our team’s weekly staff meetings. The kudos section was intended to encourage consistent, regular recognition and positive acknowledgment among colleagues. What happened through that process was truly profound. Peers didn’t just share specific kudos that was authentic, timely, and sometimes passionate, but they also started to look for opportunities during the work week to catch someone going above and beyond so they could share something special during the staff meeting. Team members receiving the feedback also seemed really moved by it. They definitely appreciated the sincere peer feedback more than the typical gift card they might get from their boss during an employee appreciation event. Indeed, this simple informal peer recognition process started to build and strengthen relationships, motivate staff and truly enhance employee engagement.
While peer recognition and feedback isn’t a radically new concept, infusing it into the DNA of an organization’s performance management culture arguably is a novel concept for many. It’s one thing to have a peer recognition program “on paper” that’s rarely used but quite another to radically shift the performance management ecosystem to place heavier emphasis on peer feedback and recognition. The suggestion isn’t that bosses don’t matter or traditional evaluations don’t have a place in the performance management process – of course, they do.
But the hard truth is that what is expected rarely motivates. We expect our boss to evaluate us and provide recognition, but when a colleague takes the time to document something specific that we did that made their life easier, helped a customer or improved a process, we tend to really feel that. We don’t just feel it, we appreciate it, and we feel better about where we work and who we work with. Some would argue that it’s that feeling that creates and sustains true employee engagement.